Monday 20 November 2017

Kilkenny pilgrims on their knees as greatest story ever told unfolds

Billy Keane

Billy Keane

None of us, alive or dead, have ever witnessed a five-in-a-row. Well, not quite. Five swans landed in the Shannon just outside Clohessy's Sin Bin. Yes, five. In a row.

Ruminating seagulls, motionless as rubber ducks in an empty bath, scattered from the flight path of the famous five. Swans are as ruthless as Ryanair when it comes to securing landing rights.

Why then did we dock outside Clohessy's this early in the year?

The wheel bearing went on our way to Portroe, the home village of Liam Sheedy. Even Henry Shefflin can't drive on three wheels.

One of the five swans veered off on his own. At least I think he was a he. The bird was too far out in the water. It was, therefore, impossible to lasso the swan and turn it upside down. Even then, would I know?

Swans, they say, are people like in the 'Children of Lir'.

The swan who drifted away into space has to be Henry Shefflin. Don't ask me how he does it, but the biggest star in hurling could find room to swing a hurl in a sleeping bag.

I know the swan analogy is a bit contrived, but this is the biggest game in the history of hurling. We must scribble grandiosely to match the occasion.

You would hardly expect my name-sake Billy Yeats to write "Nine tins of beans will I have there," now would you?

The notion of swans being really people is a pagan concept.

The Bishop of Ossory, Seamus Freeman, was born in Mullinahone in Tipperary, but was taken over the border to Kilkenny when he was a few days old. I'm told that the former hurler says all his prayers for The Cats and I suspect, like most of Kilkenny, he's down on his knees praying for Henry's knee.

But will the knee spancel Henry? Maybe there's no such thing as a cruciate. I have lost count of all the times I have heard the ould lads proclaim "there were no hamstrings in our day."

It used to crack up us young lads. The old boys were tough. Off goes the leg, chopped into a threshing machine.

Into the pot with it, for consommé. On with the threshing, hobbling around with the cauterised, oozing stump and no let up 'til the corn is in the Kellogg's box. But how is Henry?

One way or the other, Kilkenny and Shefflin would be better off without the injury. And what will happen if Henry comes off?

These matters are usually dealt with at the team meetings. The manager will go through every scenario and get the players mentally ready for every eventuality.

There are players on their bench who would walk on to the All Stars if they could only get on the Kilkenny team.


Back in 1982, deep into the second half, when Kerry were going for the five-in-a-row, our heroes began to tire. It could have been the years of toil catching up with them against a fresher and superbly trained Offaly, but I think they were mentally exhausted too from the hype.

There's a Kilkenny flag hanging out every window. You could stretch the bunting around the world. There's no escaping the expectation. It has to affect these young lads and that's what they are, young lads. It just has to affect them.

Back in 1982 there was no pressure on Offaly. They were written off, but Tipp are different. Tipp are expected to really put it up to Kilkenny and that brings its own pressures.

It's tough enough having to play in an ordinary All-Ireland, if there's such a thing, but this is the All-Ireland of all time. I just hope the game is won by sheer brilliance and not due to human error.

What do you do when you are shaking with the nerves and the butterflies in your tummy have razor blades for wings? Take a quick half- one and smoke a fag?

It's been done. In a way, the easiest bit is when the sliotar is thrown-in and the bloody thing gets under way.

You rely on the skills honed in the tractor-tracked haggard at the back of the cow house or in between parked cars and garden gates.

Skills that auto-pilot you through the jitters, because they are as much a part of you as breathing.

We wish all the lads the very best. And their families too.

If Tipp can survive the first 20 minutes, they will give the final a right rattle.

Do refs make a draw out of games anymore? Kilkenny will probably win, but maybe we might have our first double replay since 1931.

It could just be an inner longing for more of this. Where I come from, hurls are used to take the froth off pints.

Ah, but how we love every honest knocking shoulder, every high- handed bare-knuckle catch, every surreptitious shift to a clearing in the ash, every twinkling shimmy, every brazen bullocking, every stolen hook, every bust out, every break in, every scythe swished sideline cut, every quick-pick pick-up, every deft flick, every true struck puck, every man straining.

We are lucky to be here to witness such a day as this. If only we could have a Sunday like this every Sunday. For it is true, for sure, that there is no better game anywhere and there has been no more momentous match than this.

Irish Independent

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